John Harbaugh has had historic success with the Baltimore Ravens in his first four-plus years as a head coach in the NFL. While some would attribute his success to timing—the acquisitions of a franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco and an immensely talented running back in Ray Rice coincide with Harbaugh's introduction to head coaching—the truth is that he has changed the culture of the team, and his “team as family” mentality is the cornerstone of the winning formula Baltimore has enjoyed during his tenure.
Harbaugh took on a Ravens squad that was widely known for its lack of discipline on the field, and he entered a locker room that was fragmented. Veteran players initially displayed discomfort with Harbaugh's more authoritarian coaching style, as well as his motivational style. In his first season, one veteran player shrugged off one of Harbaugh's post-game speeches, saying that maybe using props and famous quotations worked for some of the younger guys.
However, fairly quickly, key players either bought in to Harbaugh's mentality or, in a few cases, were relieved of their duties as a Baltimore Raven. The result has been a team in which players frequently refer to each other as “a family,” and express over and over again that the strength of their locker room is key to their success as individuals and a unit.
Harbaugh deserves more than just a pat on the back for the tight-knit team he has built in Baltimore. He has that “it” factor so valuable in a head coach, the ability to make players believe. However, it was never more evident than in the Ravens humiliating loss to the Texans on Sunday that he has neglected one major responsibility as a head coach: managing his coaching staff.
In his first year with the Ravens, Harbaugh brought in his mentor Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. Cameron had failed in a head coaching stint with the Miami Dolphins, and came to Baltimore to head up a perennially weak unit. It was a tall order, but the Ravens legendary defense and the emergence of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco as a reliable game manager aided Cameron's transition.
However, over five years, Cameron has consistently shown two fatal flaws: an inability to adjust in-game, and a sometimes inexplicable tendency to abandon the run. These two elements have been evident in all of the Ravens poor offensive showings, and yet have not changed.
On the Ravens successful opening drive against the Texans, Ray Rice was running the ball effectively, for gains of 6 yards, 2 yards, and 17 yards. Then, in a mystifying turn, they simply stopped running. Well before the Texans lead warranted the Ravens' pass heavy approach, Rice stopped getting the ball.
The offensive line had arguably their worst performance, and Joe Flacco was clearly rattled early on. With the Texans blitzing on nearly every play, the receivers jammed at the line of scrimmage, and without the run to set up the pass, the Ravens failed to possess the ball. Thus, a defense already weak was on the field for the majority of the game. The result was a 43-13 rout, and sinking hearts all over Baltimore.
Harbaugh has escaped the most scathing criticism over the years, as it has rightfully fallen on Cameron. However, enough is enough. A head coach must not only control his players, but also his coaching staff. Harbaugh's apparent deference to his senior and his mentor is no longer acceptable. If Cameron is, as would be expected, going to finish out the season in Baltimore, then it is up to the head coach to ensure that Cameron's inherent weaknesses do not define the offense.
Harbaugh should be credited for taking the blame on Monday.
“[A]s far as responsibility for that game, to me it’s on me,” he told reporters, “We were not in position to win that game. We didn’t put our players in a great position to win the game.”
When asked if the Texans took away the run, he admitted, “No, we could have stayed with the run a little more patiently.”
Accepting responsibility. A important step. Now, Harbaugh has to take another important step: accepting control. He is in a position to demand changes in play-calling, during the games as well as while scheming for upcoming contests. He cannot allow his youth and inexperience to stop him from behaving like a confident, competent leader of his staff.
Is it necessary for Harbaugh to rip Cameron's head set off, and begin calling offensive plays himself? Not at all. He simply needs to say what everyone else is saying: Cam, we've got to give the ball to Ray Rice. Now.